Everyone who was present at the Shell Jackrabbit Ski Day in Ottawa in February 1982 will forever remember the moment when "Jackrabbit" Johannsen skied onto the field at Mooney’s Bay wearing bib number 107 commemorating the number of years of his remarkable life. The Jackrabbit skiers began to cheer and Chief Jackrabbit stopped and saluted them with a great wave of his ski pole. He then proceeded to the podium where he was welcomed by Ed Schreyer, Canada’s Governor General at the time, who presented him with his Jackrabbit Leader’s Badge. I don’t precisely recall the words of Jackrabbit’s message that day but remember that he told the young skiers to enjoy life to the fullest, always respect the environment, exercise and keep their bodies healthy and ski every day there was snow.
The second time I had the honour of meeting Jackrabbit Johanssen was two years later when he sat at the finish line and met the Jackrabbit skiers who had skied the last leg of the Marathon. He welcomed each skier personally, shook their hand and told them that they had done a good job skiing such a long distance. His love of young children and personal warmth surrounded everyone who was present that day.
Born in Norway in 1875 Hermann Smith Johannsen, better known to most as Jackrabbit, lived for more than 11 decades. Throughout his long life he devoted himself to the development of skiing. Alice Johannsen, his daughter, writes, "Over the years ‘the Jackrabbit’ marked and cleared, almost single-handed, hundreds of miles of cross-country ski trails, spanning the wilderness and linking isolated communities." It was during the Depression that the Johanssen family moved to Canada, living first in Westmount (a suburb of Montreal, Que.) and then in the Laurentians in Piedmont. It was during this time that he created the Maple Leaf Trail which ran from Labelle to Shawbridge, a distance of 128 kilometres. The trail was designed as a touring trail that skiers or hikers could use by disembarking from the train at various towns and then ski or hike from town to town boarding the train again at another point for the trip home. My mother and father-in-law often entertained our family with stories of the adventures they had on the many ski weekends they spent in the Laurentians. A favourite trip was to leave Montreal by train on a Saturday morning, travel to Ste-Adele, leave the train and ski to Morin Heights. They would spend the night at an inn or farmhouse, ski to Ste-Sauveur or Piedmont on Sunday and then catch the train home in the evening. Our children especially liked the story of the one time their grandparents were stranded in the Laurentians for a week, after a particularly heavy snowfall had stopped the trains. They spent the week skiing, digging paths to peoples homes which were covered with snow and staying with many hospitable strangers who would kindly feed them and put them up for the night. They would, on occasion, meet Jackrabbit when skiing the trails or they would see him participating in one of the lively groups of singers on the train trip back to Montreal.
Alice Johannsen writes about one such trip that she enjoyed with her father after an early storm had brought snow to the Laurentians. "Dad and I took the ski special from the CNR Tunnel Station where in the early morning we found skiers converging from all directions bearing knapsacks, skis and poles through the almost bare city streets. The snow in the mountains, however, was already deep and, as the train went through the tunnel under Mount Royal and over the flat plain behind the city, we worked our way through from car to car to see who else was on board. They met up with three lively young members of the Montreal Ski Club, Allan Tiffin, Art Gravel, and Emery St. Pierre. . ." Alice, and her father, who the boys obviously considered ‘one of the gang’, joined the group and they travelled together to Ste-Sauveur. Once they had left the train they took turns breaking trail and travelled to a farmhouse beside Lac Morin which was rented by the Montreal Ski Club. While toasting their sandwiches over the stove and drinking hot tea Alice was treated to a recounting of some of the boy’s earlier adventures . . . "Remember that time," Emery recalled, "when after dark we decided to play ‘hare and hound’? We were a big gang up here that night. The moon was full, the snow was fresh, and I said, ‘Herman, you be the "hare". We’ll give you a two-minute start. Then all of us "hounds" will follow your track and try to catch you before you can get back here to the house.’ "You set off at a great pace, down the gully, off through the deep woods. We followed as best we could, in and out among the trees, down and up again, and finally we heard you holler from way up beside the Lone Elm. Then you swooshed back down here to the lake. ‘Just look at that jackrabbit go:’ I shouted as we all streamed after you. But we never did catch you, and you sure had the laugh on us when we panted up to the kitchen door. Somehow the name ‘Jackrabbit’ has stuck, and I guess we’ll always call you that!"
It is fitting that Cross Country Canada’s youth program carries the name of this legendary man. The Jackrabbit Ski League originated in Manitoba in 1976. Following its initial success there it was adopted as a national program in 1980. The program is designed to teach young skiers the skills required to enjoy the sport of cross country skiing. The program stresses that skiing should be taught in an atmosphere of fun. Games are therefore often used when teaching a particular skill. Badges are awarded for participation, skill development levels, touring, improvement in speed and racing. Leaders encourage their young skiers to consider the sport of cross country skiing as a lifestyle choice.
As a result of the tremendous success of the Jackrabbit program there evolved a need to develop a program for Jackrabbit graduates. The Challenge program was established to meet these needs. The primary focus of this program is on personal achievement through fun, participation and team work. The program recognizes the developmental needs of adolescents and their desire for peer acceptance and can develop in many different ways. The design of the program will usually be determined by the interests of the young skier and the resources available at the individual clubs. Leadership and personal development are important aspects of all Challenge programs.
Several years ago, Cross Country Canada designed a Bunny Rabbit program. This program was created in response to the obvious need to accommodate the many young children, ages 4-5 years, who were ready to learn to ski but were too young to participate in the more formal structure of a Jackrabbit program. Many clubs across Canada provided input to the Bunny Rabbit program based on programs already established in their clubs.
The most recent addition to the Jackrabbit Ski League suite of youth programs is Racing Rabbits. This is a program designed for the older Jackrabbit with a special interest in and the necessary skills to participate in a low-key competitive program. It expands on the introduction to racing that is provided in the regular Jackrabbit program and helps to bridge the gap between the Jackrabbit program and the junior racing programs offered by many clubs.
Jackrabbit Johanssen felt confident that the existence of the Jackrabbit Ski League would ensure the future of cross-country skiing in Canada, especially after seeing the enthusiasm demonstrated by the young skiers he met at that Jackrabbit Ski Day in Ottawa 15 years ago. Since its inception nationally, more than 125,000 children have participated in the program and each one of them, in their own way, feels that ‘Jackrabbit’ Johannsen is a personal friend.
Anyone, through the years, who had the privilege of meeting Hermann Smith "Jackrabbit" Johannsen knows that it is not that he managed to live to 110 years of age that is important but how he lived each of those years fully right up to the end. "For Jackrabbit, each year was divided into two seasons, one with snow and one without. How often he would say with anticipatory pleasure as the autumn leaves began to fall, ‘On or before the 15th of November I’ll be out on my skis every day!’ And that was no exaggeration, for skis were his only means of winter locomotion. He would don them to go for the mail, to meet the train, to do the shopping. He never walked. He skied. And he always wore a knapsack on his back to carry whatever might be necessary . . ."
On the last few pages of Alice’s book she writes "We can almost hear him say, ‘All my life I have been anxious to see what lies on the other side of the hill, and at the same time I have never failed to enjoy the scenery along the way. With all my senses tuned in - sight and hearing, taste and smell and touch - I was able to reap full benefit from each experience. So, I say, set your goals high, and stick to them, but approach them step by step so that at any given time your expectations are not impossibly out of reach. Climb your mountains slowly, one step at a time, following a well planned route. And when at last you stand upon the summit, you can look beyond, to the farthest horizon!’"
Author’s note: All the quotes in the article are from "The Legendary Jackrabbit Johannsen", written by Alice E. Johannsen, McGill University Press. Copies are available in paperback ($14.95) and hardcover ($34.95) by writing to the Jackrabbit-Laurentian Ski Museum, 220 rue Beaulne, Piedmont, Quebec, JOR 1K0.